Congress poised to reject high-speed rail funding

McClatchy NewspapersApril 20, 2012 

— The Obama administration sought $1 billion for high-speed rail next year; Congress is on track to provide zip.

In a bad sign -- but not a killing blow -- for California’s speedy rail ambitions, senators this week joined their U.S. House counterparts in dismissing the administration’s funding request. The bicameral blow-off means a fiscal 2013 transportation spending bill will omit the high-speed rail dollars President Barack Obama wanted.

On its face, the omission of new high-speed support does not directly impede California’s program. The state already has received some $3.3 billion in federal funds to get the project started, and no additional funds were planned on for the new fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

“This is something we anticipated,” Dan Richard, chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said in an interview Friday. “In our business plan, we do not expect any additional federal funds for at least three years.”

Long-term, though, the omission underscores the complications California could face in coming years when federal funds are explicitly relied upon. The state’s latest high-speed rail business plan anticipates the federal government providing $42 billion of the total project cost, now pegged at $68.4 billion.

“We continue to have the risk of either stranded investments, or the even bigger risk that California is forced to spend money it does not have to salvage something,” Elizabeth Goldstein Alexis, co-founder of the Palo Alto-based Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, said in an interview earlier this month.

The state’s revised business plan envisions a first phase connecting Merced to the San Fernando Valley within 10 years, as well as a “blended system” involving upgraded commuter lines in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area. State and private funds also will be used.

The congressional funding decisions happen in the annual appropriations bills, which are separately passed in both House and Senate. Lawmakers then negotiate a final deal in a high-stakes conference. When neither the House nor the Senate includes money, it’s not supposed to pop up in the final bill, and members of Congress this year have explicitly promised to forgo such last-minute maneuvers.

On Thursday, the full Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the $53 billion funding bill that covers federal transportation and housing programs. A key subcommittee had passed the bill earlier in the week, without any discussion about high-speed rail but with senators stressing the budget pressures they feel.

“It was not an easy task,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., adding that “achieving our goals required making difficult choices.”

Instead of the high-speed rail funding requested by Obama, the Senate bill offers $1.75 billion for assorted rail programs, with most of the money going to Amtrak. The bill also includes $500 million for a highly competitive “TIGER” grant program, which can potentially fund high-speed rail projects. The Transportation Department reports having received more than 3,000 applications in past grand rounds.

The Republican-controlled House has not yet approved its version of the transportation spending bill, but GOP leaders have been even more emphatic about their intentions to deny funds to Obama’s rail priorities. Underscoring the point, the House this year approved an amendment to another bill by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, that blocked funds from going to California’s high-speed rail program.

Urged on by House members, the Government Accountability Office is now reviewing the state’s program. As originally requested by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and 11 other GOP lawmakers, the study is supposed to include a neutral assessment of how much federal money will be needed both to build the California system and to operate it.

“It’s unfortunate that high-speed rail has become a high-profile political project,” Richard said, “and I hope in the future it will revert to being just another transportation alternative.”

email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com

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